James Bond Is Dead, Long Live James Bond: A Closer Look At Skyfall

Skyfall isn’t your typical James Bond movie, and seeing as it’s the 23rd of them to be released since 1962, that’s saying something. It’s not brand confusing, Never Say Never Again weird, or strange in the Moonraker, race-of-hyper-evolved-space-people sense, but it’s undeniably different from every Bond film that has come before it. That includes the previous two Daniel Craig movies, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, which already felt a bit more like stepchildren rather than full-blooded heirs to the legacy.

Both those films can be seen as stepping stones leading to Skyfall, with the serious tone, more grounded action, and rougher-edged hero establishing the telltale signs of the Craig era, like how a ridiculous number of gadgets lets you know that you’re watching a Roger Moore entry. Yet, Skyfall sticks out not just as a culmination of the “Craig trilogy,” but also as an unprecedented moment of self-reflection upon both the franchise as a whole, and the cinematic influences that have been guiding James Bond for the better part of a decade.

While guys like Tony Soprano and Stringer Bell were busy kicking off the Golden Age of the small screen, movies at the start of the 21st century were similarly defined by anti-heroes.  The last ten years saw a shift in focus towards more morally ambiguous protagonists, with the internal workings behind established icons – ones who used to just get away with righting wrongs, spouting a one-liner, or just getting the bad guy – becoming more important. Batman changed from a campy comic book superhero to a dark vigilante, Anakin Skywalker fell to the dark side to became Darth Vader, and audiences went to theaters in droves to witness the gruesome last days of the Ur-Western hero, Jesus Christ.

In Bond’s case, the rebirth of Ian Fleming’s time-tested spy as a steely, but deeply wounded government asset had as much to do with the franchise’s past failures, as another’s surprise ascendency. Thanks to a diamond-powered space laser and invisible Jaguar XKR, 2002’s Die Another Day was the closest thing to a death rattle since License to Kill, and it was clear that both Pierce Brosnan, and Bond as the world knew him, were due for retirement. This was made all the more apparent in the wake of Jason Bourne’s explosive appearance on the scene, mere months before Die Another Day. Bourne rewrote the rules of the espionage game: garish villains, impossible tech, and a smarmy, invulnerable lead were out; post-9/11 paranoia, kinetic photography, and a compromised hero were in.

Casino Royale took those lessons to heart when it premiered in 2006, and audiences noticed. Daniel Craig’s straw spun mop was just a taste of the changes the franchise had undergone during its proper transition to the new millenium, with Bond evolving into a gnarly rough and tumble, who seethed and grimaced everywhere a quip and smirk used to fit. Echoing the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (unforgettable to fans, less so to the producers), Casino Royale ended with the newly inducted 007 heartbroken at the death of his lover, the resulting rage over which became the drive for the sequel, Quantum of Solace. Thanks to the writer’s strike, that film hued closer to the Brosnan bunch in terms of plot, characters, and general quality, but it did provide an imperfect coda to Casino Royale, one that teased the mysterious Quantum group (perhaps a 21st century version of SPECTRE) as an ongoing story hook for the next director, Sam Mendes, to pick up.

Mendes didn’t do that, for a number of very good reasons, not the least of which being how tepidly received Quantum was, especially when compared to the near-universal praise garnered by Casino Royale. Delayed by MGM’s bankruptcy, Mendes and his team of writers were given something else to work with, due to the rescheduling of Bond 23’s release date to 2012: the 50th anniversary of Dr. No. What could have easily wound up being a half-hearted acknowledgement of Bond’s continued existence, was actually designed as a proud celebration. Bond’s golden anniversary was hyped and marketed for months, in a campaign that included a serendipitously timed in-character cameo from Craig, during the opening of the London Olympics. Given that Mendes and company had less than a year to film and process Skyfall, and had lost venerated writer Peter Morgan during preproduction, it’s a minor miracle the film lived up to expectations. Since its release, Skyfall has earned massive amounts of praise from critics and fans, and is ready to supplant Quantum of Solace as the best-selling Bond movie ever, only three weeks into its North American run.

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